diamond geezer

 Saturday, April 07, 2012

In a last hurrah before pre-recession funding dries up, Hastings opened a major new art gallery last month. It's one of a so-called string of pearls round the southeast coast, linking Margate via Eastbourne to Chichester. The idea is that cultured townies will flock to the seaside for the promise of "art", and hopefully stay long enough to drip their cosmopolitan wealth in each resort's economy. This latest project is the Jerwood Gallery, a major project by the eponymous Jerwood Foundation, a charitable organisation in need of its own display space. They settled on a location on the Hastings seafront, more specifically on the former long-stay coach park on The Stade, close to where the town's fleet of fishermen haul their boats up the beach. They're absolutely livid at this middle class interloper invading their space, not just because they miss the coachloads of tourists, but because it's out of place in this hard-working part of town. The council disagree, hoping for regeneration-a-go-go, and gave the land rent-free to keep their major benefactor on side.

The building's low-rise, so as not to dominate its surroundings, and jet black so as not to distract from the famous wooden Net Shops alongside. It's all a bit blocky, to be honest, so you won't be visiting to marvel at the architecture. The occasional large glass window breaks up the walls, although those on the ground floor are tinted to stop too many passers-by from snooping through. That's because this place costs to get in, a grand total of seven pounds a ticket, or rather seven pounds for a till receipt and no accompanying leaflet. Local residents are allowed entry for only £2 on production of proof of address, although you might get past the front desk for nothing if you can reel off a Hastings postcode without pausing.

In the large gallery downstairs, the inaugural exhibition is a retrospective of work by Kent artist Rose Wylie. No, me neither. Six very large works fill the room, under the collective banner Big Boys Sit in the Front, each painted in almost cartoon style. Her brush strokes are thick, her colours are bold, and her characters are roughly drawn. One of her paintings is in reaction to the Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds, which isn't what you'd expect a septuagenarian to be painting, while another features cats with oddly triangular heads. I couldn't quite enjoy the work, and I may not have been alone. The room slowly emptied until I was the only one in it, which was in sharp contrast to the galleries still to come. The most interesting canvas turned out to be the live show of customers at the Fish Hut and Jellied Eel Bar opposite, augmented by passers-by pausing to peer in through the tinted window. A series of short documentaries screened in the adjacent room helped endear me to the artist a little more, but alas not to her œuvre.

Seven further galleries showcase the Jerwood Collection, or about a third of it, on rotating display here in Hastings for the first time. There are no old masters here, the emphasis is on more modern artists, especially work that's been shortlisted for the annual Jerwood Prize. Much of that downstairs was challengingly abstract, in a way that judges like but leaves me cold. Upstairs the subjects were more recognisably figurative, which helped. Female portraits clustered in one room, while "Look, I've painted a jug" seemed to be the theme in another. Most artists have been represented by a single canvas, which increased variety, and you'll probably leave with a couple of "I never knew I liked them"s added to your repertoire. But sixty paintings don't go far. "Is that it?" asked one fur-coated lady to the attendant at the top of the stairs, then wandered off swiftly when told that it was.

There's a café, obviously, because there has to be a café, and dozens of bank holiday art lovers had settled in there for lunch. The menu looked rather appetising, and not unduly expensive, and reassuringly locally sourced. But there was something slightly awkward about the outdoor terrace, where diners can gobble gravadlax whilst looking directly down over the fishermen of Hastings toiling and flogging fresh fish from their ramshackle stalls.

It's a fine gallery, although it does indeed feel out of place amid the bustle of the harbour. It showcases some fine art, although not enough to detain me for more than forty-five minutes. It has a fine-looking website, but one sadly lacking in detail if you drill down further. And really, it's fine, although not quite as entertaining as I might have been hoping. As part of a trip to Hastings it's an essential addition to the tour schedule. But don't come specially just for the Jerwood, because it turns out the rest of the town was plenty interesting enough before it arrived.

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